The Barbican and its conservatory

Sunday, May 12th 2013

This morning was largely taken up with a leisurely breakfast (guess where?1) and the usual shopping trip to Sainsbury’s. After more leisureliness (which included putting away the shopping, drinking tea and desultory plinking on our respective computer keyboards), we decided to go out again.

Tigger had a plan.

“It’s not something you’ll like much,” she added, by way of encouragement.

This is what it was:

Michael Caine
Michael Caine
An exhibition at the Museum of London

The Museum of London is currently holding an exhibition on the life and career of actor Michael Caine and Tigger wanted to see it. I was happy to go along too as it made an outing and admission was free (my favourite price). Photography was not allowed so we had to be content with a couple snapped from outside.

Tigger was right, though: left to my own devices, I wouldn’t have bothered. Not that I have anything against Michael Caine – I haven’t. The few films of his that I have seen, if they didn’t bowl me over, were not too bad either. The man has character – or, charisma, to use the favoured word – which is more than you can say for some of the luvvies disporting themselves on the screen these days. No, I’m fine with him as an actor, it’s just that I have not the least interest in him as a person or in the story of his life from cockney sparrer to film legend.

As an exhibition, it’s pretty boring. It consists mainly of photos of Caine at various moments in his life and on the screen, some clips from his films (e.g. the “You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off” scene) and footage from various interviews such as those by Parkinson, in which our boy gets to do an imitation of himself. All good clean fun but I would have thought they could have managed a few artifacts such as costumes and props.

Stairway to Heaven?
Stairway to Heaven?
External stairs, residential block, Barbican Estate

More interestingly, we went to the Museum of London via the Barbican. The Barbican is a huge complex, consisting of two parts. Firstly, there is a huge residential estate, built to replace housing destroyed by bombing in the Second World War, and originally intended as Council flats, but now privately owned. Secondly, there is the arts complex dedicated to “art, music, theatre, dance, film and creative learning events”. Altogether, the place is vast and it’s not always easy to find your way around.

Angles and mixed perspectives
Angles and mixed perspectives
Unlovely and unsubtle

The buildings of the Barbican cannot be described as beautiful. They are in the Brutalist genrel, huge blocks of concrete rough cast and unfinished. As I walk about there, I feel myself worrying that I might stumble against a wall and shred my skin on it.

Tall tower
Tall tower
Dominating the skyline

Immensely tall towers dominate the skyline and on all sides great concrete blocks of masonry close in the view. I say “masonry” rather than “architecture”, though I suppose someone must actually have designed these monstrous structures. The ground between the buildings is like a wasteland and much of it seems to be dug up or closed off with barriers. Despite the occasional bench, I never see anyone here.

Dolphin fountain
Dolphin fountain
A patch of greenery

In one place, there is a patch of greenery with a fountain decorated with two bronze dolphins. The fountain flows and is kept clean but, again, I never see people here.

Today, however, inside the arts complex we visited what may be just about the pleasantest place in the Barbican. The public can access this facility but it is open only at certain times.

The Barbican Conservatory
The Barbican Conservatory
Not always open but worth a visit when it is

I was quite surprised to learn that there was a conservatory in the Barbican and interested in visiting it. It is big, like everything else here, and has two levels. The air is humid, as you would expect, but as long as you can bear that, the visit is enjoyable.

Exotic plants
Exotic plants
A tidy jungle

The conservatory is of course packed with plants, flowers and trees of many kinds, mostly exotic, I think, though I am no expert. Despite the abundance, the place is clean and well kept, a sort of tidy jungle.

One of the ponds
One of the ponds
With plants and fish

As well as solid earth, there are ponds and running water, these bodies of water also furnished with aquatic plants and with fish. The water is clean and clear and the fish can be seen swimming about.

Large fish
Large fish
Swimming about in shoals

In some places there are groups – almost shoals – of large fish, possibly Koi Carp. They make an impressive sight.

Turtle
Turtle
Meditating on a rock

We climbed the stairs to the upper level and on the way spied a turtle in a small pool, sitting on a rock. He was very still as though meditating.

Cactus garden
Cactus garden
Just one corner of it

On the upper level there was an extensive garden of cacti and succulents and the picture above shows just one corner of this. There was much more and many other types of plant.

Hanging basket
Hanging basket
Beautiful colourful flowers

While I enjoyed the plants and trees and the pleasant atmosphere of the walkways, there was something else in the conservatory that was my favourite feature. Now, I must say that I disapprove of keeping any animals in cages, especially birds whose very raison d’être is to fly free in unlimited space. With that reservation in mind, my favourite feature was the small aviary on the ground floor.

The whistler
The whistler
Not impressed with my attempts to imitate him

We spent some time watching the birds and they flew about within their cage. On the plus side, the aviary was clean and the birds looked healthy, except for one of three young quail, one of which had bald spots on his back – possibly as a result of bullying by the others. The “whistler” as I called the bird pictured above, spent his time emitting low, single-note whistles. I was able (it seemed to me) to make a sound close to his but I could see he wasn’t impressed by my efforts!

Colourful bird
Colourful bird
Is it a finch?

As you can imagine, photographing birds in the aviary is quite difficult. For one thing, these small species flit about rapidly and often take off just as you click the shutter, leaving you with a picture of an empty branch! For another, the enclosing wire mesh gets in the way. This doesn’t cause problems with watching the birds because the brain simply tunes the wire out but the camera is not so clever. This is where manual focus is a necessity – it allows you to get past the wire, as it were.

Barbican terrace
Barbican terrace
Sit outside or visit the cafe

After our visit to the conservatory, we went down to the broad public terrace that has seats and a view over one of the ornamental lakes. There is a cafe here where we had some soup.

St Giles Cripplegate
St Giles Cripplegate
An old church in the heart of the Barbican complex

From the terrace there is a good view of the old church of St Giles Cripplegate. Its name comes from the fact that it originally stood outside the wall of the city by one of the gates. It is thought that the first church was Saxon but it has been altered and rebuilt on several occasions, with a major rebuilding in 1545. Badly damaged in the bombing that laid waste to the area during the Second World War, the church was restored according to the 1545 plans.

Residents' garden
Residents’ garden
Barbican Estate

I have been critical of the architectural style of the Barbican but have to say that I have no idea what the dwellings are like or what it is like to live in the Barbican complex. Entrances to the estate are all locked and therefore accessible to the inhabitants alone. The same is true of the garden in the above photo. There is growing concern about the way “gated communities” are proliferating but in these days of crime and violence I imagine the feeling of security is reassuring to residents.

Another tower
Another residential tower
I hope the lifts are in working order…

________

1If you guessed Pret A Manger in St John Street, you guessed correctly 🙂

Copyright © 2013 SilverTiger, https://tigergrowl.wordpress.com, All rights reserved.

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About SilverTiger

I live in Islington with my partner, "Tigger". I blog about our life and our travels, using my own photos for illustration.
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4 Responses to The Barbican and its conservatory

  1. Mark Elliott says:

    I’m not a great fan of modern, Brutalist, architecture, but as you have mentioned it twice now in recent posts, perhaps a clarification of the term is needed. Brutalist does not mean that the architecture is, by its very nature, meant to be brutal; rather it comes from the French en brut, meaning unadorned or left in its primitive, unfinished state.

    This obviously means that the concrete isn’t cladded, pargetted or whatever, but left to weather as is. I once heard a BBC R4 radio programme where it was argued that such designs might have greater sense in sunny climes, but in GB, it is a bad choice due to damp, moss, etc.

    In my own personal opinion, Brutalist architecture is not a good option anywhere.

    • SilverTiger says:

      Yes, I was aware of the meaning of the name though the other more usual meaning of “brutal” seems to fit this architecture as well. I find it inhuman and depressingly ugly.

      To your point about weather we might add that of city grime: many new buildings in London soon become dirty and streaked with muck carried down the façade by rain. They look disgusting and where the surface is rough cast the effect is even worse as the dirt is caught and held in the nooks and crannies. I often think that modern architects design on paper and have no conception of what the real building will actually look like when finished.

      Architects need to give less thought to being innovative and eccentric and give more consideration to making buildings that are appropriate to their intended purpose and fit harmoniously into their environment.

      • Mark Elliott says:

        I couldn’t agree more with your sentiments. More than ever, we are victims of spreadsheets and what people term as blue sky thinking (magical realism?). If architects had to live in or near the monstrosities they create, perhaps they would think twice before blighting our cityscapes.

        I think that, in architecture as in art, people are afraid to express their real feelings towards many “challenging” or “innovative” concepts which, in my opinion are nothing more than intellectual laziness, unbridled egotism, money-grabbing greed – or indeed – a mixture of all three.

        • SilverTiger says:

          I have written about this in some of my posts: people should express their opinion of art and architecture and not hold back because they think they are not clever or knowledgeable enough to judge. If you don’t like it, say so.

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